I have one very distinct memory of being happy when I was a kid.
I was having a toasted bagel with butter and washing it down with a glass of chocolate milk. I was sitting at the kitchen table, and it was a sunny day outside.
And that’s basically it.
Now, I don’t actually know what part of this experience made me happy. Was it the bagel? The chocolate milk? Was I having my first experience of salty and sweet together, and my taste buds were awakened in response? Or was I happy for another reason, and I just associated that feeling with the meal that I ate while I was in that mood?
I don’t know and, without the benefit of a time machine, I will never know. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to recapture that moment.
My childhood was pretty uneven in terms of emotional upheavals, because of pressures I was dealing with at home and at school. By the time I got to college a lot of the pressure at home was gone (my parents were divorced and my father was finally out of the house) but my school pressures got worse. That’s because my freshman year of college was the first time in over a decade that I didn’t have a rigid school structure, and moving from “You will do THIS, and then THIS, and then THIS” to “It’s a really good idea to go to class” (a verbatim quote from the guy leading my tour during freshman orientation) really unhinged me. It was also the first time since 8th grade that I was taking co-ed classes and, frankly, all those boys around unhinged me, too.
So, even though I’d had bad times during grammar school and high school, it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I really got depressed. I was dropping out of classes left and right. I wasn’t in a steady relationship, and the fellow student I got involved with turned out to be a major screwup on many levels. I nearly lost my virginity to him, which is something that he blogged about years later (using my name as well as some revisionist history), which definitely confirmed my opinion of him as a screwup. I became involved with several of my older co-workers at my work-study job, which brought about its own series of tensions and problems.
Most importantly, I thought that I could never be happy again. I had a weird theory that while I had been happy in the past, I couldn’t be happy in the present. In between bouts of suicidal thoughts, I wrote poems and stories about being happy, about finding happiness in unexpected places, about learning to say yes in the moment and being happy in the moment.
I gave one of those poems to my chorus teacher (who I had a crush on) (so what else was new?), and he convinced me that I should join an organization that he was a part of. He called it The Forum, but you might have heard of it as EST or as The Landmark Forum. I think that if a) I hadn’t felt like my life was falling apart and b) I hadn’t had a crush on him I wouldn’t have gone along with this idea, but I did. Well, The Forum could definitely be the topic of its own post, but to summarize my experiences I can say that while I did learn a few things that were helpful to me at that low point in my life I still wouldn’t recommend it. Because it costs a lot of money and they will want more, because they will want you to bring more people to them, and because they will try to pressure you and your friends and family members to come back and pay for more classes for YEARS after you’ve come to your senses and backed away from them.
Okay, sermon over. Back to the topic of food.
So the idea of comfort food is a very strong one for me. There are way too many times that I think, “I’m feeling sad, so I need some … ice cream / brisket and noodles / Irish coffee / bagels and chocolate milk / etc.” Again, I don’t know if any of these things actually bring me any level of happiness or if they’re just a band-aid made out of endorphins that make me feel less lousy in that moment.
I visit my mother once a week, which often brings about its own series of emotional upheavals and gut-wrenching trips down memory lane. Or … it sometimes does. Sometimes I visit, drop off the library books, DVDs, and containers of food and leave relatively unscathed. Sometimes she wants to discuss something from our past (like my father) that sends me to make a beeline for a pizzeria as soon as I leave.
This week I knew in advance that it was going to be an unhappy visit because she’d called me several days ago and told me that the next time I came to visit she needed me to change the dressing on her leg which she injured several weeks ago. This brings along several boatloads of additional agita, because that’s the leg she injured that wasn’t treated as quickly as it should have been and wasn’t stitched up as well as it should have been, as determined by both my mother’s regular doctor who took the stitches out and the surgeon he sent her to afterwards. Oh, and she’s asking ME to do this rather than my brother who lives with her because … well, I don’t even bother asking that question anymore.
Well, I’m not sure if this was a conscious or subconscious decision, but by the time we finished buying stuff from the farmer’s market yesterday, our purchases included both bagels and chocolate milk.
So I visited my mother this morning, and my steady hands must be good at hiding my twisting heart. Because after I cleaned and treated her leg in the same kitchen where I enjoyed that bagel so many years ago, she said that I did a good job, and that I would make a very good nurse. Meanwhile, I was so upset by the experience that even though I was wearing gloves the whole time it was hard for me not to go into full-blown Lady Macbeth hand-washing mode.
So then I went for a walk, and came home, and had my bagel with chocolate milk.
Yes, it was delightful and delicious. But it didn’t untwist my heart, and it didn’t bring me happiness.
And I probably shouldn’t expect it to.